The justices divided 4-4 in the long-running dispute that pits the state against Northwest Indian tribes and the federal government. The tie serves to affirm a lower court ruling in favor of the tribes.
At issue is whether Washington state must pay billions of dollars to fix or replace hundreds of culverts large pipes that allow streams to pass beneath roads but can block migrating salmon if they become clogged or if they're too steep to navigate.
Jay Julius, chair of the Lummi Indian Business Council, called the decision a win for treaty rights, river rights and salmon.
"This is not just about tribes' treaty right to fish, but also the inherent right to harvest from a plentiful, healthy supply of salmon," he said in a statement.
Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said the decision would "open hundreds of miles of high quality salmon habitat that will produce hundreds of thousands more salmon annually for harvest by Indians and non-Indians."
The Supreme Court in April heard the state's appeal of a ruling by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. That court affirmed a lower court order in 2013 requiring the state to fix or replace hundreds of the highest-priority culverts within 17 years.
Washington has argued that its treaties with the tribes created no obligation to restore salmon habitat. It said the ruling would force it to perform work that wouldn't benefit salmon because other barriers may completely block fish, and it would also make the state's taxpayers responsible for fixing problems created by the federal government when it specified the design for the state's old highway culverts.
"It is unfortunate that Washington state taxpayers will be shouldering all the responsibility for the federal government's faulty culvert design," state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement.
He said salmon can't reach many state culverts because they are blocked by culverts owned by others, such as counties and the federal government.
"The Legislature has a big responsibility in front of it to ensure the state meets its obligation under the court's ruling," Ferguson said.
"It is time to stop fighting over who should do what," Franz said Monday.
The US government sued Washington in 2001 on behalf of the 21 tribes to force it to replace the culverts with structures that allow fish to pass through. Because the pipes block salmon from reaching their spawning grounds, they deprive the tribes of fishing rights guaranteed by treaty, the lawsuit said.
The state transportation department has so far fixed 319 barriers, according to a 2017 report.
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)